Stories about boxing and boxers typically fall within the likeable – but predictable – category of “rise tales”. Like the iconic Rocky character, a lone fighter battles internal demons and external pressures to emerge victorious. From Hilary Swank’s gutsy female fighter in Million Dollar Baby to Stallone’s billion-dollar franchise, boxing stories appeal because they’re simple. The central message is that the greatest battle a fighter faces is with her or himself and that it is only through struggle that a human can truly know themselves. Many people can relate to the idea that the spectres of self-doubt or lack of self-belief can be as tangible as a physical opponent.
Adding to the genre’s mystique, there’s the visceral cultural tropes of boxing rings, body fluids, muscular physiques, gruelling training sessions and physical violence.
Shadow Boxing, by English actor and writer James Gaddas, was a remarkable monologue about masculinity, gender, sexuality and identity recently on show at Sydney Fringe. It was a frenetic piece of 50-minute theatre that combined extreme physical endurance with a compelling story about what it means to be a queer man in the hyper-masculine world of boxing. Actor Samuel Addison literally sprayed the audience with sweat as he delivered lines while boxing, skipping, running, sparring and doing sit-ups.
Addison played the character of Flynn, the son of an unsuccessful boxer, with the latter best known for his signature costume of brown velvet shorts. We met Flynn as a young boy, telling a teacher that he preferred to read than play outside. We watched his battles with schoolyard bullying and the difficulty of growing up in his absent father’s shadow. Later, we became ringside spectators at one of his father’s most punishing fights. His father crawled broken across the ring, desperately trying to rise to maintain face in front of Flynn. But Flynn turned and walked away.
To describe Shadow Boxing as fast-paced does nothing to describe the exhilaration and commitment of its central player. Addison skipped between the voices of his father, trainer, sports journalist, teacher, police officers, lovers and himself. It was a remarkable piece of shape-shifting punctuated by techno music, strobe lighting, constant movement, flashbacks and fight scenes. Increasingly, Flynn was torn between his increasingly clear sense of himself and the image of the rugged fighter that the world expected him to present.
Shadow Boxing was not a simple parable about finding one’s identity through struggle. The play asked difficult questions about desire, consent and violence in public and private relationships. Flynn demanded respect of the world, feared ignominy and loneliness, yet eventually decided to use a title fight as a platform to publicly announce his queer identity. He imagined an epic coming out, with the world’s attention focused on an openly gay champion boxer, only to be thwarted at the eleventh hour by a sporting culture unwilling to embrace complexity. Paradoxically, he also faced a challenge from a young lover when he sought to express his gentler side.
Addison deserves the utmost admiration for the sheer scale of his commitment; it was one of those occasions where an actor threw everything at a role. This production did sometimes feels as if the emotional intensity and pace need greater modulation – it drove along like a V8 stuck in top gear – yet it remained a raw, vivid and exciting piece of theatre.
Shadow Boxing presented by Feet First Collective
Emerging Artists’ Sharehouse/Erskinville Town Hall
Producer/Director/Movement Coach: Teresa Izzard
Associate Producer/Designer/Performer: Samuel Addison
Dramaturg/Vocal Performance Coach/ LGBTQIA+ adviser: Donald Woodburn
Sound Designer/Composition: Bec Price
Shadow Boxing was performed 26-30 September as part of the Sydney Fringe Festival.